Everywhere you look, in this modern world, you see the works of Man. Cities, towns, highways, fields. Homo sapiens sapiens, our species, has been a prolific creator, a builder, a shaper, a creature unparalleled in changing its environment to suit itself.
Before our species arose, however, another human species walked the planet. For a million and a half years these people walked the Earth, hunted, gathered, and scavenged. They pioneered the use of fire, of language, and of clothing; they explored areas uninhabitable to their forebears. Our time on this Earth has been but the merest eye blink to the span these people dominated.
The species I refer to is known by the famous examples of Java Man, Peking Man, and the Turkana Boy; they were Homo erectus, and they explored and opened a world before us, their successors.
- Who were they?
Erectus lived and walked on the Earth from roughly 1.8 million to 300,000 years ago, although some recent evidence suggests that isolated populations survived until perhaps 27-50,000 years ago. Their brains ranged from 780-1225cc's in volume, as opposed to modern man's 1400cc average. While their bodies were fairly similar to modern humans, some striking differences emerge upon examination; significantly, their spinal cord cross-section was less than half that of H. sapiens; their neural spines (the projections on the anterior portions of the vertebrae) were longer than modern man's, and the femur neck was noticeably longer. Erectus may have been even more efficient than sapiens at walking, due to the lack of necessity for a widened birth canal to pass a sapiens-sized braincase.
The greatest difference erectus shows from modern man is found in the skull. Erectus skulls show a typical morphology. A low, flat forehead, heavy brow ridges, an occipital bun at the rear of the skull, and protruding jaws containing teeth larger than those of modern man characterize them. Richard Leakey suggested that an erectus youth, given "a cap to obscure his low forehead and beetle brow" might pass in a crowd today with little notice.
Below the neck, erectus fossils demonstrate the same sort of climatic adaptations found in the races of modern man; erectus specimens found in Africa reveal tall, slender individuals, where fossils found in higher latitudes tend to be shorter and stockier.
Erectus individuals were nonetheless extremely powerful people; muscle attachment points on erectus skeletons speak of massively muscled, enormously strong individuals. A harsh existence no doubt favored the strong; by comparison, modern bodybuilders might seem positively effete, and an erectus transplanted to the present would have little difficulty winning a Mr. Universe competition.
- What did they do?
Erectus was a hunter/gatherer; they used fire, built crude shelters, and pursued large game. They may have been the first humans to build watercraft.
Homo erectus was very likely the first human species to utilize fire, to cook food and drive away predators. Interestingly, erectus may have been the first humans to form alliances with the predatory animals around them; new DNA evidence suggests that the dog/wolf genetic split occurred better than 1 million years ago, during erectus' tenure. Current evidence suggests that erectus had at least limited use of language.
Hunting was another innovation of erectus; while earlier humans (Homo habilis, H. rudolfensis) probably scavenged and hunted small game in an opportunistic fashion, erectus was the first to hunt large game. It was in the hunting of large game, which required the cooperative effort of several adult males, which formed the foundations of tribal structure and indeed, was the beginning of human society.
The most remarkable thing erectus did, however, was to colonize. Erectus fossils have been uncovered in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Indonesia. They were the first humans to leave Africa, and in doing so blazed trails followed by other, more advanced humans in later times.
- What happened to them?
There are two prevalent theories on the ultimate fate of Homo erectus. In the multiregional theory, erectus evolves into early Homo sapiens simultaneously, in the many and varied regions to which erectus had spread. The multiregional theory has fossil evidence in support; in many cases, the line between H. erectus and so-called "archaic" sapiens fossils in somewhat arbitrary. In the "Out of Africa" theory, an isolated erectus population in Africa gave rise to Homo sapiens, who then spread "out of Africa" and eventually out-competed and displaced earlier humans in Asia and Europe. This theory, incidentally, is supported by the same mitochondrial DNA evidence that suggest a "mitochondrial Eve" in our collective backgrounds.
Whatever the fate of Homo erectus, they remain as one of the greatest success stories in humanity's history; a successful, innovative species that persisted for 1.5 million years, populated the better part of the planet, and produced some of the greatest innovations that finally and irretrievably set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
They are a people we can all be proud to count among our ancestors.